Ear congestion occurs when your Eustachian tube becomes obstructed or is not functioning properly. The Eustachian tube is a small canal that runs between your nose and your middle ear. It helps equalize the pressure in your middle ear.

When the Eustachian tube becomes clogged, you feel fullness and pressure in your ear. You might also experience muffled hearing and ear pain. These ear congestion symptoms can also be caused by problems in your middle ear or the ear canal that affects the eardrum (also called the tympanic membrane).

Any condition that affects your sinuses can lead to ear congestion, such as common colds, allergies, and sinus infections. Air travel and changes in altitude can also cause Eustachian tube dysfunction, which can cause symptoms of ear congestion.

Read on to learn more about what could be causing your ear congestion and how to find relief.

To treat ear congestion, you first need to identify the cause. The following are causes of ear congestion and their treatments.

Sinus-related issues

Any condition that causes sinus congestion can also cause ear congestion. This includes:

  • common cold
  • flu
  • allergies
  • sinusitis (sinus infection)
  • irritants, such as tobacco smoke

Here are things you can do to relieve sinus congestion and related ear congestion:

  • Take a nasal decongestant
  • Blow your nose gently
  • Use a nasal rinse or nasal irrigation system
  • Use a humidifier, as dry air can irritate your nasal passages
  • Avoid tobacco smoke and other irritants
  • Drink lots of water, especially in the evening, to thin your nasal mucus

Fluid buildup

Getting water in your ear while showering or swimming can cause ear congestion. Try the following to get water out of your ear:

  • Jiggle or tug on your ear lobe with your ear tilted toward your shoulder.
  • Lie on your side with the plugged ear facing downward.
  • Apply hydrogen peroxide ear drops and then lie with your ear facing down for a few minutes.
  • Lie on your side and apply a hot compress for 30 seconds, remove for a minute, then repeat four or five times.
  • Use over-the-counter ear drops that contain alcohol to dry out the ear canal.

Wax buildup

Earwax is produced by your glands to moisturize and protect your skin. It doesn’t usually need to be removed from your ears unless it’s causing symptoms, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.

Here are ways to remove wax buildup from your ears:

  • Soften earwax by placing a few drops of olive oil or mineral oil in your ear.
  • Use over-the-counter ear drops or an earwax removal kit.
  • Use an ear syringe with lukewarm water or a saline solution.

Allergies

Allergies can cause ear congestion when mucus backs up and gets trapped in your Eustachian tube or middle ear. Taking allergy medications, such as antihistamines and decongestants, can relieve ear congestion and other symptoms.

Travel

The rapid changes in air pressure during air travel, especially during takeoff and landing, puts stress on your middle ear and eardrum. You can avoid or relieve airplane ear congestion by chewing gum or hard candy, swallowing, or yawning during takeoff and landing.

You can also try:

  • The Valsalva maneuver entails gently blowing your nose with your mouth closed while pinching your nostrils. Repeat as needed.
  • Wearing filtered earplugs during takeoff and landing helps to slowly equalize the pressure.
  • Use an over-the-counter nasal decongestant spray 30 minutes before takeoff and landing if you’re congested.

Ear canal blockage

If you suspect that there is a foreign object inside your ear canal, do not try to remove it yourself. Instead, see your doctor right away or head to the nearest emergency department or urgent care center.

Middle and external ear infections

A middle ear infection can cause ear congestion, as well as dizziness, ear pain, and occasionally fluid drainage. They’re usually caused by colds or other respiratory problems that travel to the middle ear through the Eustachian tube.

External ear infections, also known as swimmer’s ear, are usually caused by water that remains in your ear after swimming or bathing, providing an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. You may experience pain, itching, redness, and clear fluid drainage or a discharge of pus.

Ear infections often resolve without treatment. Over-the-counter ear drops and pain medication can help relieve your symptoms. If your symptoms are severe or last more than two days, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

Though not as common, ear congestion can be caused by medical conditions, some of which are serious and can lead to hearing loss and balance problems. These include:

  • Meniere’s disease. This is an inner ear disorder that causes severe dizziness and hearing loss. It’s more common in people 40 to 60 years old. The cause of the disease is currently unknown, but the symptoms are caused by fluid buildup in the labyrinths, which are compartments of the inner ear.
  • Cholesteatoma. A cholesteatoma is an abnormal growth that develops in the middle ear due to poor Eustachian tube function or a middle ear infection.
  • Acoustic Neuroma. This is a slow-growing, noncancerous tumor on the nerve that leads from your inner ear to your brain. Symptoms are usually subtle and come on gradually as the tumor grows, and may also include ringing in the ears (tinnitus), dizziness, and balance problems.
  • Fungal infection of the external ear. Fungal ear infections are more common in people who swim often, live in tropical climates, or have diabetes or chronic skin conditions. There are more than 60 types of fungi that can cause them. Along with ear congestion, fungal ear infections can also cause ringing in the ears, swelling, pain, itching, and hearing problems.
  • Serous Otitis Media. This is a type of middle ear disorder with a buildup of clear, or serous, fluid. It often also causes hearing loss. This type of problem is more common in children after they have an ear infection.
  • Afflictions of the jaw joints (temporomandibular joints). The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) run along the sides of your jaw and allow you to open and close your mouth. TMJ disorders can cause symptoms that can be felt in the ears are usually caused by your jaw being out of alignment due to an injury, arthritis, or chronic teeth grinding.

See your doctor if your ear congestion lasts more than two weeks or is accompanied by:

  • fever
  • fluid drainage
  • hearing loss
  • balance problems
  • severe ear pain

Ear congestion is common and can usually be successfully treated at home using home remedies or over-the-counter treatments.